Today's Roanoke Times has a good article on floating the Roanoke River - which is one of the region's rivers I've never dipped a paddle into. It also has a cautionary reminder about the dangers for kayakers and canoeists - a kayaker drowned in the Maury River near Goshen Pass last Sunday. Always paddle within your skill level and do not go alone. Remember a dunking on a 90° summer afternoon isn't nearly as dangerous one on a blustery 45° morning. Wear a life vest. I've always made it a rule to not go on the river when the water level is rising, rather I wait for the crest and enjoy the river while the levels are still high enough to be exciting, but they are dropping. I recall a drowning where a kayaker became entangled in a strainer (limbs/brush) and couldn't free himself or get help quickly enough in the fast rising North River. In short, there are times you should be a little chicken when dealing with whitewater!
Good resources for anybody canoeing or kayaking Virginia rivers are Roger Corbett's Virginia Whitewater and riverfacts.com. Corbett does a great job describing the all the major canoeing/kayaking rivers, including info and maps detailing put-ins/take-outs, hazards, low-water paddling, scenery, and the area history. The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries maintains ramps and other river access points and has good maps and other info on boating and fishing.
Some of my favorite floats and paddles over the years:
- The last few years we've enjoyed the South Fork of the Shenandoah River near Bentonville. Mostly Class I and II, with an occasional II+. Nice scenery. Since there are several rental outfits along this stretch, and it is close to NOVA, the river can be busy on weekends and holidays. Midweek is usually quiet. Nice tent-only camping at Shenandoah River State Park.
- Don't forget the rest of the South Fork of the Shenandoah. Nearly every stretch of the river from Port Republic to Front Royal has some good canoeing. But, do a little research before jumping in the river. Some areas are pretty slow, others have hazards that you may not want to deal with.
- The Maury River from Buena Vista to the James River is fun, fairly secluded, has good fishing, and can be a day trip or overnighter.
- The James River above and through Balcony Falls is great. You can break it into segments for day trips or string them together for a one or two night camping trip. Above the falls it is mostly Class I and II but the falls, even with normal water levels on a summer day, is Class III. Be prepared to get wet and/or lose unsecured gear. I've never done the falls in cold weather, but if you are running it in March and April a wet suit makes sense. Below Balcony and a couple other smaller falls is a long stretch of flat water to the take-out. This is a year-round river and can be fun even with low water levels. This popular area can be very busy on weekends.
- The upper James from Iron Gate to Buchanan is fun, secluded, and good for an overnight trip. I spent a very cold and blustery March weekend on it a few years back.
- The New River is fun and challenging. Stretches are great for a day trip and there are good areas for one or two night canoe/camping/fishing trips. Another year-round river.
- The North Fork of the Shenandoah through the bends section near Woodstock is mostly secluded, has good fishing, and is fun. I can still taste the "surf & turf" we enjoyed along the bank while camping - grilled rib eyes and pumpkinseed. Other parts of the North Fork have good kayaking and canoeing, too.
- We've had fun day trips on the Middle River and North River. The upper part of North River, through the gorge, is usually only canoeable a few days in the spring and your skill level and equipment better be top notch.